By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Flannel Pajamas,” Hart Sharp, 2007]
Despite the hoopla, genuine indies, the kind of passion-made, personal film without slumming stars or boutique-studio funding, are rarer than we think, and often just as difficult to define as such. (Indie cachet is a vital marketing factor, after all.) Here’s one way to tell: if a film eschews the compromises required in being bought up and shipped into theaters by Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics or Lionsgate, and is instead gasp self-distributed. It’s hard to question the authentic indie-ness of a filmmaker who shoulders the Herculean task of self-promoting, self-selling and self-financing his or her film’s theatrical run. 2006 saw a few, among them David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation” and Jeff Lipsky’s “Flannel Pajamas.” Lipsky, a principal figure in the post-Reagan rise of “independent film” (an experienced executive, he co-founded the now-defunct distributors October Films and Lot 49), isn’t a rising young hotshot ready to defect to the Industry once his resume film is recognized at Sundance (think about how quickly Darren Aronofsky, David Gordon Green, Jared Hess and Gavin O’Connor surrendered their careers to the machine). “Flannel Pajamas” his sophomore feature as a writer/director is instead an eagle-eyed, mature, true-to-thyself piece of cinema made for the sheer making, a film in which the people count more than the PR footprint the movie might make in the Park City snow.
The material is simple: two New York singles (Julianne Nicholson and Justin Kirk) meet, woo, fuck, fall in love, move in together, mix up with each others’ messy families, marry, grow disillusioned and break up. That’s it Lipsky’s entire intent is to tell the truth, to examine the arc that virtually everyone endures at least once in our lives and yet films (American films, anyway) always ignore. Even so, the movie doesn’t feel generalized or iconic the textures of the characters’ lives are specific, thorny, culturally alert and thrumming with surprise. These people talk, like you and your friends do, to entertain each other and to cover up their weaknesses. Kirk’s slightly goofy theatrical marketeer is so forthcoming and generous you begin to look for secretive chinks in his White Knight armor; Nicholson’s country girl is utterly beguiling except when she is moody and hypersensitive. (A busy but yet-to-be-discovered wonder best known for the 2000 indie “Tully” and plenty of episodic TV, Nicholson is one of the most addictively watchable actresses of her generation.) Egos bump and grind, sexual politics create emotional blisters, the matter of children never gets resolved, family darkness emerges from the background, all of it orchestrated in an off-hand way that evokes how real lives plow forward and intersect, not how movie plotlines rise and fall with oceanic predictability. Did Lipsky try and fail to get distributors interested in “Flannel Pajamas”? If so, the state of Indieville is far more dire and anemic than we ordinarily think.
On the other hand, Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” found a theatrical distributor in many ways, non-fiction is the new indie and the day you see it in any context might be the darkest day of your year. Entirely orthodox in its ways and means, “Jonestown” has a truly apocalyptic story to tell: of how a lonely, poor and mildly disturbed Indiana boy named Jim Jones adopted the Pentecostal business plan of his Midwestern outlands and created the Peoples Temple, a socialist, multi-racial, utopian ministry that drew in thousands of starry-eyed devotees before it began to go crashingly, sickeningly wrong. In the years since its immolation via cyanide and Kool-Aid in 1978, Jonestown has become something like a cultural scar we can only chuckle about if we dare to think on it at all. But Nelson’s film matter-of-factly reiterates the details, interviewing dozens of Temple survivors, who recall both their rapturous experience finding love and community as a member of the congregation, and their eventual awareness of their abused, delusional state of near-slavery under the increasingly deranged Jones. Today, the tale plays as a proto-fascist/totalitarian paradigm in miniature, with Jones employing the gamut of Stalinist tactics (informant dread, paranoia, threats, limited media, work-worship, etc.) to maintain his control. It’s a revolting parable on power, as well as a devastating inquiry into the religious impulse, ending with the modern era’s most spectacular auto-da-fé. You may learn all there is that is known about the Jonestown phenomenon, but the central mystery how could intelligent, loving parents be persuaded to pour cyanide down their own toddlers’ throats, and then drink it themselves while holding their cold children? remains imponderable, chilling and all-American.
“Flannel Pajamas” (Hart Sharp) and “Jonestown: The Life & Death of Peoples Temple” will be available on DVD on April 10th.